Ken Curtis, 74, singer and actor who played the scruffy hillbilly deputy Festus Haggen on “Gunsmoke” and appeared in a string of classic John Ford films, died April 27 in Fresno, Calif.
Born Curtis Gates on July 2,1916, in Colorado, where his father was sheriff of Bent County, he helped with ranching and farming before becoming interested in music.
While a premed student in Colorado Springs, he began writing songs. In 1938 he came to Los Angeles and landed a job as a staff singer for NBC Radio.
During that time singer Jo Stafford, who had a radio show with Johnny Mercer and the Pied Pipers, sent Curtis’ demo tape to bandleader Tommy Dorsey, who signed him on as a vocalist (replacing Frank Sinatra, who’d recently struck out on his own). It was Dorsey who had him change his name from Gates.
Around the same time, Curtis made a record called “Breathless” with orchestra leader Shep Fields. The tune became a hit, and Columbia Studios took notice and cast Curtis in a serial.
During World War II he served in the infantry and in an anti-aircraft unit. Upon his discharge in 1945, Curtis returned to L.A., where Stafford invited him onto her radio show. He sang a tune called “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” which became a hit, and Columbia signed him up as a singing cowboy.
Curtis joined the Sons of the Pioneers singing group, which was hired by John Ford to sing on the score of “Wagon Master.”
After that meeting, Ford cast Curtis in numerous films, including “The Searchers,” “The Quiet Man,” “How The West Was Won,” “Mister Roberts,” “Cheyenne Autumn,” “The Last Hurrah,” “Rio Grande,” “Wings Of Eagles” and “The Alamo.”
From 1952 to 1963 Curtis also became Ford’s son-in-law, marrying his daughter, Barbara.
In 1959, Curtis produced a science-fiction picture called “The Killer Shrews.” He went on to star in the popular tv series “Ripcord.” He also was in “Perry Mason,” “Rawhide” and “Have Gun Will Travel.”
His character Festus was introduced on “Gunsmoke” as side-kick to Marshal Matt Dillon after Dennis Weaver left the show, and the character proved so popular he stayed on from October 1963 until the series ended in 1975.
Curtis later appeared in another series called “Yellow Rose.”
He lived his later years in Fresno.
Survived by his wife, Torie, two children and eight grandchildren.